Post War Developments in Market Research

A square image of the cover of the AMSR e-Book entitled Post War Developments in Market Research

Don’t be put off by the rather clinical title.  This little e-Book is actually 12 essays providing a tour d’horizon of Research written by 12 genuine luminaries of the research firmament.  For older readers it will be a waterfall of memories and half remembered details.  For all new entrants to the industry it should be required reading; a primer covering the breadth of market and social research.

If you are not familiar with the Archive of Market and Social Research it is a collection of books, papers, reports, speeches, articles, data etc on the broad topic of research since the Second World War.  It is a charity that relies on donations of documents, time and money and is free for anyone to use.  It is available online and already has 130,000 pages of material with more being constantly added.  In a recent AMSR event Professor Claire Langhamer, a historian at Sussex University described the archive as “loads of really useful stuff about the past.”  And I can’t really improve on that description.

William Gibson is often quoted as saying “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed”.  This collection made me feel that the past was all around us but also not very evenly distributed.  I know there are those who think that post internet the world of research has changed beyond all recognition (perhaps not just the world of research but the world in general!).  But don’t be fooled; just because some of our primary data collection methods have shifted doesn’t mean that the principles and lessons of the past become irrelevant.  These essays will help practitioners to think for themselves and decide what things remain true or relevant and which need reshaping.

Because these are compact essays you can read them in any order you like to follow your interests.  But they are short enough so that you can read them all.  I’ve been lucky enough to work in almost every area of research and because of the breadth and depth of these essays there were still lots of things to learn.

There is a little bonus to the essays as each one of them comes with a helpful list of references to items in the archive.  These serve as an excellent entry point for a browse in the archive, allowing you to narrow down on your particular area of interest more quickly or follow a fascinating new trail.

There are some wonderful hidden hands revealed in these essays too.

In qualitative research Wendy Gordon learned her trade with Bill Schlackman who worked for Ernst Dichter who was trained in Vienna at the time of Sigmund Freud.  Fortunately we have moved away from some of the extremes of Freudian analysis but I sometimes feel that a stronger hold on the ‘motivational psychology’ roots of qualitative research might have led to Behavioural Economics becoming a part of research rather than perceived as a new ‘science’; one that is often used to criticise market research approaches.

And here is the hidden hand of Stephen King, the godfather of advertising planning.  His inspirational analysis and use of research data and his encouragement of the qualitative contribution has helped to make research a serious and useful contributor to the communications industry.

Watch out for George Gallup whom we have largely to thank (or blame) for the media obsession with election polls.

We also glimpse Andrew Ehrenberg whose first principle analysis of consumer panel data has added genuine rigour to the way we understand how people buy products.  Anyone aware of Byron Sharp and his thinking should know he is rooted in the Ehrenberg tradition.

And then there are the little factlets that surprise.  In 1982 only 77% of people had access to a phone at home (and for younger readers that is a phone fastened by wire that you could not take out and about with you!).  The importance of audit research in the growth and success of commercial television.  Newspapers used to own polling companies. The retail (and consumer) prices index relies on data from surveys to ensure they are representative of goods purchased. 

It is revelations like these that make the archive so attractive to social historians. 

Indeed this is not just a collection for market research aficionados; anyone with an interest in the culture and commerce of Britain since the war will find something to fascinate.  I suspect it will also lead many to dig further into the archive for yet more detail and wider reading.

The breadth and diversity of the individual essays makes it almost impossible to summarise this book.  It is certainly an important contribution to the history of the research industry.  But it also makes the topic very accessible.  I would like to hope that it goes beyond history and becomes part of a window through which potential recruits can see a vibrant career path and through which the general public can understand more of the role of research and be more willing to cooperate when they are asked their opinion.


Contributed by Paul Edwards

Date posted: 26th March 2021

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